Latest Reviews
Thursday
Apr032014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Has superhero fatigue set in? Six years have passed since the first “Iron Man” film, with each year seemingly more crammed with costumed heroes than the last, so one has to wonder how much longer this will last before the subgenre implodes on itself. If “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is any indication, it still has some legs, though it’s clear that we’re crossing into “been-there-done-that” territory at this point.

Although it had its detractors, I would argue that 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger” is one of the best in the recent Marvel canon, right up there with “Iron Man” because the film showcased the type of courageousness and nobleness one would expect from a hero. Captain America didn’t fight for any other reason than because it was the right thing to do and his big heart and selfless desires—to fight and even die for his country, if necessary—validated him. He was a character that was easy to root for and love. Thematically, the film didn’t have much going on, but as a character study, it worked, which forgave its thematic thinness. “The Winter Soldier” introduces more themes, many of which pertain to today’s world due, in part, to its modern setting, but neglects to follow through on them. That is the film’s biggest deficiency.

The story takes place in Washington, D.C. where the Captain, also known as Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is adjusting to his new life as a part of the Avengers working for S.H.I.E.L.D., the espionage agency that deals primarily with superhuman threats. S.H.I.E.L.D., under the leadership of Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) is about to launch Operation Insight, which will place machine gun mounted helicarriers in the sky that are designed to protect the country’s citizens. The Captain doesn’t agree with this operation and, after a crazy turn of events, including a violent attack on Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the possibility of a S.H.I.E.L.D. compromise, he is branded a fugitive. So while being hunted by the mysterious Winter Soldier, he finds himself on the lam with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), vowing to uncover whatever plan is about to unfold and put a stop to it.

And it’s with the introduction of those helicarriers that the film introduces its themes. The Captain disagrees with the very idea, arguing that launching the operation would only scare people into giving up their freedoms (“This isn’t freedom; this is fear,” he explicitly says at one point). To him, placing these eyes in the sky, always peering below for potential threats, compromises the freedom and right to privacy America’s citizens deserve. In a post-9/11 world where phone tapping and other surveillance measures are commonplace, these ideas couldn’t be more relevant.

The film even questions the notion that joining the military is the greatest thing you can do. While the Captain still considers the well-being of the country’s citizens his number one priority, he talks about how joining today, as opposed to during the World War II era he grew up and found his patriotism in, isn’t the same. The moral compass of “the greatest generation” is now gone and we instead “protect” our citizens with fear and intimidation. In a strange way, the film supports serving your country through activism rather than enlisting in a time of government corruption and unconstitutional actions.

As intriguing as these themes are, “The Winter Soldier,” unfortunately, drops them all too quickly. Actual insight is limited and most come through deep exposition rather than narrative exploration. Instead, the film rests on the laurels of being yet another Marvel movie. The flip side to this somewhat disappointing coin is that, luckily, the majority of those Marvel movies, while not all great, have been pretty solid. The action here, while certainly not as bombastic as “The Avengers,” is serviceable, if a little clunky. While some of the action is fluid and fun, other moments are too shaky and hectic. The camera likes to zoom in occasionally and follow each punch and kick to their fast paced conclusions and doing so sometimes makes the action a bit hard to follow.

One welcome addition in this installment is the greater focus on Black Widow. Not much more than a periphery character in the previous films, she has an expanded role here and she is allowed to come into her own. She’s a more complicated person than her previous appearances might suggest and she has to battle her own motivations between doing what she’s ordered to do and doing what’s right. The bond she forms with the Captain doesn’t really lead anywhere if looking for an emotional arc, but it works nonetheless.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” will do exactly what filmgoers will expect of it and in that regard, it’s a success. Most won’t care about its thematic inconsistencies and had they not been included in the first place, one couldn’t fault it, but bringing them up and dropping them so quickly afterwards only to bring them up again in a cheesy late movie speech is a missed opportunity. This film had the potential to be one of the more intelligent, insightful movies in the Marvel canon, but ends up compromising its ideas for more of the same old Marvel action. It’s just a good thing that Marvel action is still as impressive as it is. But while “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is easily recommendable right now, push this back a few years, when superhero fatigue has done more than show glimpses of itself, and it might not be.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier receives 3.5/5

Friday
Mar212014

Muppets Most Wanted

The Muppets are some of the most endearing pop culture icons in history. They’re just so darn lovable that even in their most kid-centric fare, there’s usually enough in there to entertain the adults, especially now. Many adults today grew up with the Muppets and, thanks to their big time resurgence in 2011’s succinctly titled “The Muppets,” they’re able to share the joy they experienced as children with their very own young ones. I imagine there’s nothing more pleasing than watching your child as he or she stares up at that screen in awe at something you too once found so magical. It’s here where the new film, “Muppets Most Wanted,” succeeds. Whereas “The Muppets” leaned heavily on nostalgia, to the point where it could be argued that adults would get more out of it than kids, this film is strongly focused on the tykes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though it admittedly comes as a disappointment following its strong predecessor. Still, “Muppets Most Wanted” is charming and ridiculous in all the right ways.

The film takes place immediately after the first one. The story has wrapped and the Muppets wonder what they’re going to do next; that is until they see the cameras still lingering around. This must mean, they surmise, that they’re doing a sequel. After a hilarious opening number about sequels (and how they’re never quite as good as the original), they’re off on their next adventure with Dominic Badguy (whose last name means “Good Man” in French), played by Ricky Gervais. He claims to be a tour manager and agrees to jet them around the world to perform. However, he’s actually in cahoots with Constantine, “the world’s most dangerous frog” who uses their tour as a cover to commit crime. Before Kermit knows it, Constantine takes his place, given that they look almost exactly alike, while he rots away in a Russian prison run by Nadya (Tina Fey).

The story in “Muppets Most Wanted” isn’t great and it certainly doesn’t contain the meaning or emotion its predecessor had in spades. But while this won’t touch you the way “The Muppets” did, it will make you smile. And if you’re familiar with famous films, you’ll find even more to enjoy, with references to movies like Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” thrown for fun. The best moments in the film, however, come from its self-awareness, like with its aforementioned jabs at sequels despite being a sequel itself (the eighth one, to be exact, as Scooter points out) or with the gang’s quick narrative visit to “Plotpointburg.”

“Muppets Most Wanted” doesn’t stop there in its skewering of screenplay crutches or pop culture; even the various celebrities who appear as cameos don’t mind being poked fun of, like when pop star Usher shows up as, you guessed it, an usher. While most of these cameos are too good to spoil here, it goes without saying that the film, as with most Muppets productions, is filled to the brim with recognizable stars in bit parts that they would never accept for anything else. That’s just simply how desirable it is to be in a Muppets movie.

The film falters, however, when it gets around to its musical numbers. You won’t find a “Rainbow Connection” here, or even a catchy little ditty like “Life’s a Happy Song” from the last film. Aside from the opening number, not a single song is memorable, and even that opening song works more due to its self-referential humor than it does its actual musical composition. “Muppets Most Wanted” isn’t as light on its feet as previous films and a few solid musical numbers would have gone a long way towards curing that sense of boredom that occasionally sets in.

Yet “Muppets Most Wanted” is still entertaining. Despite a few adult jokes, this one is mostly for the kids, and that’s totally fine. Kids need the Muppets, a ragtag group of friends who love and accept each other, where no two are alike and whose differences aren’t highlighted, but nevertheless make them who they are. The Muppets have always been inclusive and their enthusiasm is infectious. This newest film is silly and has a goofy story (more so than usual), but that’s part of its charm and while you won’t be blown away, you’ll still walk out with a happy grin on your face.

Muppets Most Wanted receives 3.5/5

Friday
Mar212014

Bad Words

Jason Bateman is one of the most likable people in Hollywood. We may not know how he acts in private, but in films, interviews and other public appearances, he comes off as a charming, lovable goof. It’s that considerable charm that pulls him through some of his otherwise lackluster film and television efforts (“Identity Thief” comes to mind). With this, one can’t help but wonder what he was thinking when he agreed to do “Bad Words.” He’s not good at being bad and, with this being his feature length directorial debut, he doesn’t have the directing chops to make up for it. Not since “Bad Teacher” has a central character been so vile, so hurtful, so unnecessarily mean that he manages to kill any goodwill the film may have had otherwise. It’s going to be hard to top this character’s repugnancy this year and it’s almost certainly destined to be one of the worst of the year.

Guy Trilby (Bateman) is a 40 year old man who finds a loophole in the national children’s spelling bee contest that allows him to enter as a contestant. He even has a sponsor, as all participants must, in the form of Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), a journalist for a nationally recognized online publication. She hopes to get to the root of his motivation, but he’s very reserved in that regard. He doesn’t want to reveal why he’s doing what he’s doing, but he has his reasons.

It’s a fairly weak plot with a thin narrative arc and an even thinner emotional one. Guy is unhappy and treats those around him poorly. To put it plainly, he’s a scumbag and it’s nearly impossible to care about him in any way. A good example of his personality comes early in the film when he’s on an airplane. A sweet Indian kid named Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand) starts talking to him, which, of course, is a minor inconvenience to him, so he proceeds to tell the kid to shut his “curry hole” or he’s going to tell the pilot his bag is ticking. While this is one of the more extreme examples of his pervasive boorishness, it nevertheless captures him well.

This wouldn’t be a problem if his actions were explained. More than anything else, this film needed a gradual reveal. Something needed to happen to open this hateful character up and reveal the man within to help the audience feel empathy, but that doesn’t appear to be on its agenda. Despite a tender moment or two, there’s no gradual reveal of Guy’s motivations. Instead, it’s merely said in passing. Without ruining the reveal itself, Jenny, being the journalist she is, figures out his motivation and his primary goal, to which he replies with the equivalent of, “Good job.” There’s no emotion in this scene, nothing to suggest that the man we see isn’t the man he wants to be.

In fact, when it appears he may build some goodwill, he promptly negates it with his puerile antics. Throughout the tournament, he manipulates kids around him into dropping out or otherwise losing, but as soon as he finds out someone has been manipulating him, he has a childish freak out. When the end rolls around, it’s shown that his actions have had zero repercussions and the closure he alludes to, which is the very reason he went on this strange journey, still appears to be out of grasp. He may take what some may consider the high road at a certain junction in the back half of the film, but it doesn’t negate the numerous low road decisions made prior.

It should also be mentioned that “Bad Words” simply isn’t funny. While a chuckle or two here and there may sneak its way out of some, the vileness of the character always serves as a reminder that the person you’re watching is more worthy of pity than laughs. Guy is a sad excuse for a man and an even sadder excuse for a character that we’re supposedly meant to root for. “Bad Words” is one of the most hateful, mean spirited comedies in recent memory and has close to zero redeeming factors.

Bad Words receives 0.5/5

Thursday
Mar132014

Need for Speed

With the popularity of franchises like “The Fast and the Furious,” it was only a matter of time before a film adaptation of the popular video game racing series “Need for Speed” blasted its way into theaters. Coming from a series that features only the thinnest of stories (certain installments had none at all), it should come as no surprise that the film of the same name is similarly thin and meaningless. But while thin stories can be forgiven in a video game if the gameplay is solid, it’s hard to look past it here. “Need for Speed” features a capable leading actor with the former “Breaking Bad” star Aaron Paul, but the movie he’s in is near disastrous.

Tobey (Paul) is a down-on-his-luck mechanic. He owns a shop, but also owes his bank a lot of money. Unless he comes up with a substantial amount soon, the shop will be taken away from him and his crew. As luck would have it, along comes Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), a rich entrepreneur who offers him a job: to build a fancy car worth millions of dollars. Once it sells, he’ll receive a quarter of the profit. It’s an easy job and the car is quickly sold, but clashing ideas lead to macho threats and the two, along with Tobey’s buddy, Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), end up racing. Dino, who will do anything to win, ends up killing Pete during the race and frames Tobey, who is put in jail for two years for manslaughter. Upon his release, he sets out to win a spot in an underground street race called De Leon, which he hopes will clear his name and prove that Dino isn’t the person he pretends to be.

“Need for Speed” does something that is very hard to do: it brings together parts that are individually very good and mashes them into something that barely functions at all. Aaron Paul, for example, is a better actor than the typical meathead you get in these types of movies and he manages to give the emotional scenes some validity, but those scenes are so overwrought that they’re hard to take seriously. This vendetta Tobey has against Dino is nothing more than a flimsy excuse for high octane car chases. You see, the De Leon race he wants to participate in is actually in California. The problem is he resides in New York, so he has to make the long trek across the country, all while cops chase after him for breaking his parole and street punks try to take him out at the behest of Dino. There’s a proper narrative beginning and ending, but no arc in between. It’s essentially one long car chase.

Tobey also has a passenger, Julia (Imogen Poots), the assistant to the guy who lets Tobey borrow his car to drive across country, which leads to a number of narrative problems. Never mind the obvious question of why this man would let a recently paroled felon borrow his multimillion dollar car to travel cross country to an illegal street race. The biggest fail that derives from this forced companionship is a half-baked romance that falls flat on its face, despite the two spending the majority of the movie together in that car.

Much of this is to be expected, of course. Films like those aforementioned “Fast and Furious” films too suffered from many of the same issues, but that franchise eventually found its footing by realizing its absurdity and embracing it. Despite reaching a sixth installment in what amounts to a pretty thin premise, the popular franchise has only gotten better because of this self-awareness. Conversely, “Need for Speed” is oblivious and takes itself far too seriously. Even its score fails to realize the nature of the film it’s accompanying. By itself, or in another, more appropriately epic film, the score is majestic. It’s a sweeping, beautiful score that fits this film like an adult trying to squeeze into a baby sized onesie. When the score builds and hits a crescendo during such trivial moments like when Tobey and his crew gas up his car without stopping, the realization suddenly sets in that “Need for Speed” has absolutely no clue what it’s doing.

Some visual trickery is the only pleasure one can derive from the film outside of its far too lengthy car chases and races, but even that feels out of place. Its over-stylization is most notable in the random “Vertigo” tunnel shots and when it takes a page out of Tony Scott’s “Book of Manufactured Excitement” with rapidly rotating cameras during otherwise quiet conversations.

But while the film is easy to look at, it’s not easy to watch. The things that work on their own don’t fit within the context of the film, so all it has to fall back on is fast cars, loud engines and macho posturing. That may do it for some, primarily car enthusiasts and those easily amused, but it will undoubtedly bore those who wish for something a little meatier. Isolate certain aspects and you’ll find something worthy, but bring them all together and you end up with the absolute mess that is “Need for Speed.”

Need for Speed receives 0.5/5

Friday
Feb282014

Non-Stop

When a film’s opening shots consist of its protagonist prepping a hard drink for himself, it’s hard to not assume the events that follow will be a little heavy-handed. When it’s in slow motion, it’s also easy to assume that it’s going to be a tad laughable. But when he starts swirling the concoction around with a toothbrush, of all things, the thought that comes to mind is that it’s going to be ridiculous. Well, “Non-Stop” is a little bit of all three. The character’s back story is inconsistent and exists solely as a means to force drama and the motivation of the mystery killer or killers is worthy of an eye roll, but it all plays out in such a ridiculous, over-the-top way that, if anything can be said for it, it’s never dull. That doesn’t mean it’s good, mind you, but if you’re looking for a stupid Liam Neeson thriller where you can turn your brain off, I suppose it works.

Bill (Neeson) is an Air Marshal prepping himself, through the consumption of alcohol, for a transatlantic flight. He hopes all will go well, as countless flights before this one have, but once in the air, he receives a text message on his supposedly secure phone from an anonymous person who demands $150 million to be transferred to an off-shore account. For every 20 minutes this doesn’t happen, this person is going to kill a passenger. Bill immediately springs into action, but he’s up against a cunning mind, one that has pre-planned everything and saving the people on this plane is not going to be easy.

Liam Neeson surprised everyone and proved himself as a capable action star with 2008’s “Taken” and even showed he could carry a mystery in 2011’s “Unknown.” In a sense, “Non-Stop” tries to blend those two together and the result is a jumbled mess, despite the cool, if admittedly thin, premise, but the problems arise quickly once you realize the movie has no idea what to do with it. Instead of actually investigating the mystery, “Non-Stop” features what can only be described as an intense text war. He prods and pokes and tries to get information from the person on the other end of the incessant messaging, but finding actual clues happens almost solely by accident.

When he does make an attempt to reveal the texter’s identity, he does so in ways that makes the most transparent person in the world look subtle. His tactics are obvious, to the point where nearly anyone on the plane could see or hear what he’s doing; for example, loudly asking his row mate, Jen (Julianne Moore), to watch the screens that transmit camera footage of the passengers, the screens that are directly in front of the very people she’s watching. While the film does raise some palpable suspense at times, Bill’s far-too-direct methods essentially kill it, as it’s far too easy to realize that nothing’s going to come from his attempts. Late in the movie when he makes a redemptive speech about how he’s not a good father or good man, it takes every ounce of self-control to not stand up and yell, “You’re not so hot an Air Marshal either.”

“Non-Stop” is a turn-off-your-brain-and-enjoy-it type of film. It demands very little with its simple story and could have succeeded solely based on its desire to be a popcorn film. If that is its intention, how can one fault it for being just that? But then the reveal happens and, without ruining anything, an out-of-left-field political message rears its ugly head. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the sentiments, it has no reason to exist in this movie. Why can’t the motivation behind the actions similarly be simple? Why can’t the perpetrator(s) simply want to be rich? The forced message in what amounts to a nonsense film sucks any goodwill one may have for it up to that point right out the window.

Much of this won’t matter for some of the more astute viewers anyway, as the eventual reveal isn’t all too surprising, so it’s likely they’ll have checked out far before it happens. If you’re familiar with other popular TV shows and movies, you’ll immediately know which passengers to focus on, as these stars wouldn’t relegate themselves to extras, and then it’s just a matter of time before you’re able to dwindle down the possibilities, though the movie does a good enough job of doing that itself with far too heavy trickery to try to throw you off the trail. We’ve seen these tricks hundreds of times before, so they don’t work.

Still, it’s hard to truly trash “Non-Stop.” It’s dumb, but, aside from that wrongheaded political reveal, it doesn’t aspire to be anything more. If the idea of Liam Neeson being Liam Neeson-y on a plane appeals to your senses, have at it. It’s not great, but you could do worse.

Non-Stop receives 2/5